There are so many profoundly talented female directors across the world grafting out impressive films to little fanfare that it’s almost staggering. Britain, in particular, is home to a large clutch of earthy, thoughtful, humble female filmmakers worthy of far, far, far greater praise. One perfect example is Clio Barnard.
Oscar-Wilde-meets-Kes might be one way of describing The Selfish Giant, the breakout 2013 film from Clio Barnard. The British director, who drew plaudits for her experimental 2010 documentary The Arbor, began with the idea of adapting Wilde’s titular fairy tale – the story of a giant who banishes children from playing in his beautiful garden. Barnard wove this notion “loosely” into a modern-day story about two working class youngsters living in Bradford, in the north of England. Excluded from school, Swifty (Shaun Thomas) and Arbor (Conner Chapman) are soon drawn towards Kitten (Sean Gilder) – a violent, uncompromising scrap metal dealer (the giant of the story, whose “garden” is his scrapyard). While he instructs the boys to go “scrapping” – collecting odd bits of metal for cash – he also sees that Swifty has a way with horses, making him the perfect rider for his steed, Diesel, whom he enters into illegal road races.
The tender relationship between Swifty and Diesel automatically recalls Ken Loach’s Kes, the classic 1969 tale of a boy and his pet falcon. “Kes is a really, really brilliant film,” Barnard told FilmInk in 2013. “It’s the UK’s Bicycle Thieves, it’s the UK’s The 400 Blows, and it’s a film that we should be incredibly proud of. I showed it to my children when they were very young, and it was wonderful to see how they responded to it. It’s a very beautiful, simple story, and it’s kind of a fable. It’s a film that I love.”
Still, Barnard claimed that the real inspiration for The Selfish Giant – aside from the tenuous links to Wilde’s story – came from her own doco. “In The Arbor, there was a boy on a horse. He was the starting point.” While The Arbor dealt with teen playwright, Andrea Dunbar, who wrote the plays, The Arbor and Rita, Sue And Bob Too (later adapted into a 1987 film by Alan Clarke), its setting was The Buttershaw Estate in Bradford, where Dunbar was raised. Barnard, who grew up near Bradford, returned to the estate when she was making The Arbor. “In a way, the original story [by Wilde] is about excluding children. And one of the things that I saw when I was making The Arbor was children who were excluded.” In particular, the aforementioned fourteen-year-old boy on the horse. “He couldn’t handle school. He needed to be out in the world, doing things. He realised his value when he got involved with looking for scrap metal and being around horses.”
Naturally, when it came to casting The Selfish Giant, Barnard felt compelled to find local children to play the parts. “It wasn’t like we could cast this broad net. We did see a lot of children, but it needed to be a child from Bradford, preferably from Buttershaw where I shot The Arbor.” Reuniting with that film’s casting director, Amy Hubbard, they wound up scouting another Bradford housing estate, Holme Wood. “That’s got a settled traveller community…because of that, there’s a big horse culture there.”
Ironically, Barnard found her secondary star Conner Chapman on the first day, but initially considered casting him in the principal role of Swifty. The search for Arbor took much longer, though it eventually led them to Shaun Thomas. “He wasn’t quite right for Arbor,” Barnard explained to FilmInk. “So the idea to switch them around came at a certain point. And I think it worked.” It helped that Shaun, like Swifty, has an affinity with horses. “He’s a really brilliant rider,” Barnard smiled.
When Barnard made The Arbor, she used on-screen actors to “play” Dunbar’s friends and relatives, and lip-synch to real-life testimonies – making it a very different prospect to The Selfish Giant. “One of the huge differences between the two films, even though I see them as connected, is that one is fiction and one is documentary – and with documentary, there is a huge amount of responsibility. The ethics of it are a nightmare. That’s what that formal technique was about. It was about the problem of representation.”
In the case of The Selfish Giant, it comes from a much more conventional form of filmmaking. “I don’t think ‘conventional’ is a bad word. And it is more conventional. It’s a straightforward fiction film. The aspiration was to tell a deceptively simple story – that’s what I’d hoped to do. It’s funny, because The Arbor critiqued social realism, and The Selfish Giant embraces it. It seemed the right way to tell this story.”
Barnard followed up The Selfish Giant with a loose adaptation of Trespass, a contemporary-set novel by Rose Tremain about a wealthy antiques dealer who leaves London seeking a new life in rural France, only to get involved in an increasingly frightening and violent set of circumstances. Starring Ruth Wilson, Sean Bean and Mark Stanley, and radically reworked in setting and tone from the original novel, 2017’s retitled Black River took Barnard off Britain’s housing estates and into a more rural milieu. “It’s definitely a different scale,” nodded Barnard prior to production. “It’s a whole new thing for me.” Though Black River slipped through under the radar, it proved that Barnard was truly adept at dealing with material on a broader canvas, and with high profile actors to boot.
For her next film, Barnard returned to the gritty, highly naturalistic, fact-meets-fiction territory where she made. Cast with a mix of professionals and non-actors, and built up through a series of workshops, 2021’s romantic drama Ali & Ava follows two different but equally lonely people (Claire Rushbrook, Adeel Akhtar) who find a surprising connection over the space of one month. “I think I just really want to see people on screen that you don’t see enough of,” Barnard told The Playlist. “This is the third film I’ve made in Bradford. The Arbor was really an important film for me in terms of getting to know a particular group of people in a particular place and wanting to tell stories about and with the people I met and about their lives…lives that are often hidden. Shining a light on hidden lives is important to me.”
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Robert Aldrich, Maya Forbes, Steven Kastrissios, Talya Lavie, Michael Rowe, Rebecca Cremona, Stephen Hopkins, Tony Bill, Sarah Gavron, Martin Davidson, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot Silverstein, Liz Garbus, Victor Fleming, Barbara Peeters, Robert Benton, Lynn Shelton, Tom Gries, Randa Haines, Leslie H. Martinson, Nancy Kelly, Paul Newman, Brett Haley, Lynne Ramsay, Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa Cholodenko, Robert Greenwald, Phyllida Lloyd, Milton Katselas, Karyn Kusama, Seijun Suzuki, Albert Pyun, Cherie Nowlan, Steve Binder, Jack Cardiff, Anne Fletcher, Bobcat Goldthwait, Donna Deitch, Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik,Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.